.- This morning President George W. Bush was received in an audience by Pope Benedict XVI for the first time. The discussions between the two world leaders revolved around the situation in the Middle East, Africa (especially Darfur), and a host of societal issues of concern to Christians.
When the topic of the situation in the Middle East was raised, particular attention was given by the Holy See to the Israeli-Palestinian question, to Lebanon, to the worrying situation in Iraq, and to the critical conditions being experienced by the Christian communities in those places.
The Vatican expressed hope that a "regional" and "negotiated" solution to the conflicts and crises afflicting the region could be found.
At a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi during the president's swing through Europe, Bush said that, "He [Benedict] was concerned that the society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religionâ and that "the Christians inside Iraq [are] being mistreated by the Muslim majority."
Bush said he assured the pope â whom he described as "very smart, loving man" â that the United States was working hard to ensure that the Iraqi people live up to their constitution in treating Christians fairly.
Bush also mentioned that the topic of their common commitment to Africa. "We talked about our attempts to help the people in Africa deal with HIV/AIDS and malaria and hunger," Bush said. "I reminded him that we've made a significant commitment to that end."
The president promised the Benedict that he'd work to get Congress to double the current U.S. commitment for combating AIDS in Africa to $30 billion over the next five years.
At one point in the meeting, Pope Benedict caught the president off guard when he asked him about his meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has expressed opposition to a U.S. missile shield in Europe and raised eyebrows with suppression of democracy.
"The dialogue with Putin was also good?" the pope asked.
Bush, eyeing photographers and reporters who were about to be escorted from the room, replied: "Umm. I'll tell you in a minute."
The meeting between the pontiff and the president also included an exchange of gifts. The Holy Father presented Bush with a drawing of St. Peter's Basilica, and an official Vatican gold medal.
The president gave the pope a rare first edition of an autobiography of John Carroll, the first archbishop in the United States. Bush also gave the pope lithographs of documents from the National Archives and a Moses walking sticking, made by a former homeless man in Dallas, Texas, who engraved it with the Ten Commandments.